By all rights, large crowds should have filled Capital Centre on the weekend of Nov. 22 to see the Washington Bullets play the New York Knicks and the Chicago Bulls.
After all, the homecoming of former Georgetown player Patrick Ewing, the Knicks' star rookie, to the site of his college heroics seemed certain to tap a sentimental vein, and Michael Jordan's electrifying play has made the Bulls one of the top draws on the road the past two years.
But injuries kept both Ewing and Jordan from playing and, as a result, a combined 20,159 saw the two games. That total, well below the 35,000 expected by team officials, cost the Bullets approximately $180,000 in expected gate receipts and helped keep Washington's average attendance among the lowest in the National Basketball Association.
"It seems that every time we are about to get it together, there comes a chink in the armor," said Dick Glover, the Bullets' chief administrative officer. "Sometimes you feel the fates are conspiring against you . . . We are disappointed."
The Bullets' average of 8,382 fans per game, down by almost 1,000 from the 9,346 average of a year ago, is fifth worst in the 23-team league. Attendance was up more than 1,400 per game last season, ending a six-year downward spiral after attendance peaked at 12,789 in 1978-79 when Washington last mounted a serious challenge for the NBA title.
Worse yet, the Bullets seem to have lost the 7,000 to 8,000 attendance base that carried the team through the relatively hard times that began this decade. Crowds of less than 5,000 are not uncommon this season, and walk-up sales bottomed out at an average of 500 for Washington's first 12 home games.
"The problem is that this city is very much a big-event, big-personality oriented town," Glover said. "Most people don't consider a Tuesday night game against the Utah Jazz a big event."
The Bullets' attendance has been especially poor in midweek games, despite promotions designed to tap into the family market. Fifteen midweek games offered reduced tickets, and every child wearing a costume was allowed in free to the Bullets' home opener Oct. 31 against Cleveland. Not many showed up in the crowd of 7,146.
"One of the things we heard most from people was, 'I would come out more often if there was price sensitivity,' " said Glover. "The week-night special makes it not expensive at all. It's like a night at the movies."
But an average of only 5,097 fans have seen Washington's six week-night games to date.
Seven hundred parking spaces will be added in January in hopes of increasing the Bullets' suburban support.
The NBA has monitored Washington's attendance, but Scotty Stirling, the league's vice president of operations, said the NBA is not concerned with the Bullets' situation.
"This franchise has been a cornerstone of the league, and (owner) Abe Pollin has been a Rock of Gibraltar," he said. "Every team goes through these kinds of cyclical attendance problems. When the Bullets start playing better, the crowds will come back."
Still, the Bullets are 199-211 (.485) since Gene Shue took over as coach in 1980-81, never finishing higher than fourth in the five-team Atlantic Division, and have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs the past two years.
The lack of player continuity also has hurt the Bullets. Forty-five players have worn the stars and stripes over the past five years, and only Frank Johnson and Jeff Ruland remain from the 1981-82 team.
"We've got to provide people an attraction they'd want to see," said Jerry Sachs, the Bullets' executive vice president. "I thought we had it this year. I thought we could create the same kind excitement we had (in 1978-79), and the team had just come together when (center) Jeff (Ruland) went down. That just seemed to take the air out of the balloon."
Although Ruland, who fractured his ankle Nov. 12 against Detroit, is clearly the heart of the Bullets, there is no indication his absence is to blame for the team's poor attendance.
Before his injury, Washington averaged 8,693 in its first 12 games. In the four home games since, the Bullets' attendance has actually risen to an average of 10,022, helped greatly by a sellout last Saturday for the Lakers' only appearance here this sason.
Indeed, the presence of players like Ruland -- solid, dependable but not flashy -- has failed to arouse much interest in the team. That chore seems to have fallen on the thin shoulders of 7-foot-7 Manute Bol, who has been a starter since Ruland's injury.
A number of fans interviewed Sunday during the Bullets' 100-93 loss to the Knicks complained about Washington's lack of a bona fide superstar.
"I think most people come out to see the players on the other team," said John Lavery, 24, of Springfield. "When someone says 'the Washington Bullets,' it doesn't conjure up 'name' players."
"The Bullets are getting better, but they're not very exciting," said Robert Reynolds, an insurance salesman from Rockville. "Until they get someone like (Ralph) Sampson or Ewing, people are going to come out to see the opposition, not the Bullets."
Washington has been forced to place the bulk of its attendance hopes on Bol, at least until Ruland returns and the team jells.
"Manute has progressed a lot, in fact, much faster than we had hoped," said Sachs. "But the entire team needs to develop. We feel these are the players who can create the excitement, but they need to come together."